The Popculturist looks back at one of the classic albums of the 70s, The Pretender by Jackson Browne.
When I was a young child, my mom had to work several jobs in order to make ends meet, and what with affordable childcare being hard to find, a lot of my memories from that time are of the back seat of her car as she drove from one workplace to the next. What I especially remember is the music. My mom always had a kind of weirdly eclectic taste in music — riding around with her back then you be just as likely to hear Ángel Parra as Lionel Richie. But one staple album that she listened to over and over, and which I’ve repeatedly returned to as I’ve grown older, is Jackson Browne’s The Pretender.
It’s funny to think of a seven-year-old saying that his favorite album is by Jackson Browne, the canonical example of the sensitive, depressive, 1970’s singer-songwriter. And especially so considering the cynicism and despair of the title track. I didn’t really know what any of the songs meant back then, of course; I just liked the tunes, and by that time, having listened to it for my entire life, it was familiar, comfortable.
It’s that familiarity that has kept me coming back to The Pretender over the years. Partially it’s because knowing the songs so well — having sung and lip-synched along for so many years — the actual meanings became obscured. The songs, the melodies: they were and are so enmeshed with associations of childhood and memory that for a long time I ignored the words.
It’s even a little ironic that this album would be so strongly tied to feelings of innocence for me, because in a lot of ways it’s about innocence — or, rather, the loss of it. When he wrote the album, Browne was approaching his 30s and dealing with the death of his wife. Here was a man who through three albums struggled with life, death, drugs, spirituality, identity, finally arriving at The Pretender and appearing to want to chuck it all away. Listening now, I hear a guy who hasn’t felt innocent in a long time, but who desperately wants to.
At various times in my life, different things have struck me about The Pretender. The last time I really thought about it was six years ago, writing a review for my blog, and what I focused on was the sort of identity crisis a 20-something goes through, trying to figure out what kind of adult he is and what kind he wants to be. These days, as a relatively new parent, I listen to “Daddy’s Tune” and think about how my own relationship with my parents has changed, and wonder what things will be like between me and my son when he gets older.
From what I gather, many critics have found The Pretender to be lacking in comparison to Browne’s earlier works. I disagree, though. At every stage of my life, somehow this one album has managed to resonate with and reflect a piece of myself. Maybe some day I’ll outgrow it for good. Maybe not. But it’s been 30 years now, and for 35 minutes of music to keep up with me for that long, there must be something there.